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#294 The Plausibility of Grounding Moral Values in God

December 02, 2012

Dear Dr. Craig,

Thank you so much for your faithfulness, zeal, and integrity in serving the Lord. I'm one of the Reasonable Faith Chapter Directors, and I recently have been discussing the ontological ground of morality with the President of my university's philosophy honors society, Phi Sigma Tau.

My friend is a moral realist, but he isn't persuaded that God's nature can sufficiently constitute the Good. He's recently advocated the position of G.E. Moore, the British ethicist who held to ethical non-naturalism.

The crux of Moore's argument is that "Good" is ineffable, beyond definition. He gives the following "open-question" argument:

If God's nature is the Good, then saying "The Good is God's nature" is equivalent to saying "God's nature is God's nature", which isn't saying much.

I've proposed the following answer to define/understand what and why the Good is in God's nature, and I'd love your help and feedback.

1) Are qualities like 'compassion', 'love', 'justice' good because they are found in God's nature, or good independently of God?

2) To claim they are good independently of God is to propose Platonism.

3) Platonism fails.

4) Therefore, they are Good because they are found in God's nature.

But why should they be Good because they are found in God's nature? Put in other words, why is God's nature good?

6) That which is good is intrinsically valuable, and ought to be valued, appreciated, or pursued.

7) God is, by definition, the Greatest Possible Being.

8) The Greatest Possible Being is that which is most valuable, worthy of appreciation, and pursuit. <== This is the crucial premise.

9) Therefore,God is that which is perfectly valuable, worthy of appreciation and pursuit.

10) From (6), (7), (8), and (9), God's nature is the Good.

My question back to him: If God does not exist, what is intrinsically valuable and ought to be valued, appreciated, or pursued?

1) If God does not exist, then there is nothing transcendent in the universe.


2) Everything in the universe is fundamentally the same stuff (quarks & waves)


3) Therefore, nothing in the universe is qualitatively different from something else, and therefore does not lay claim to valuing anything more than anything else.

4) No composite thing is more valuable than anything else.

5) Everything is of the same value.

6) We ought to value everything (atoms, plants, planets, people (made of brains, carbon, etc.), volcanoes, dogs, etc.) the same.

7) It is irrational to value people more than rocks.

8) Therefore, it is not true that we ought to value people more than rocks--they're the same.

But, if we bring the GPB back into the picture, there is now something transcendent to, and greater, than everything else. This thing therefore deserves to be valued more than everything else. And once again we have a grounding for valuing things in accordance with God (such as love, compassion, etc.) more than other things.

I'll actually be debating this person on campus in about a month's time, and so would love your help on this.

Thank you again Dr. Craig. You're an inspiration to me for the need and example of Godly Christian scholars.



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Dr. craig’s response


Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this question, Devin, since I shall simply voice my agreement with almost everything you said! But it serves as a good model to our readers of clear thinking.

My main corrective would come in response to your friend’s appeal to G. E. Moore to justify rejecting theistic ethics. As I have pointed out elsewhere, we must clearly distinguish between moral semantics and moral ontology. Moral semantics asks about the meaning of moral terms. Moral ontology asks about the reality of moral values and duties. The claim that objective moral values are grounded in God is a claim about moral ontology, not about moral semantics. The theist does not make any claim that “good” is somehow to be defined in theistic terms, e.g., “belonging to God’s nature.” The theist may thus fully embrace Moore’s view about “good” being a primitive term, not to be defined in terms of something else. Your friend has clearly conflated moral semantics and moral ontology.

What your question really addresses, I think, is not the meaning of the term “good” but rather the plausibility of theistic ethics, which takes God to be the paradigm of goodness. Anyone is free to propose whatever moral theory he likes, and we shall assess its plausibility. So if the theist proposes to take God as the paradigm of goodness, how plausible is that ontology?

It seems to me that you argue effectively for its plausibility.

First, as you point out in your first and third arguments, apart from God to ground moral values, there just doesn’t seem to be anything else that could plausibly do the job. This is the nerve of the moral argument for God. I agree that platonism is multiply defective. The humanist might try to ground objective values in human beings, but that seems to be a premature and implausible stopping point in the search for explanations. But when we get to God, there just is nothing more to which one might appeal. So the regress of explanations stops plausibly in God.

Second, as the greatest conceivable being, God must be morally perfect. For it is better to be morally perfect than to be morally flawed. This seems to me rationally undeniable. Moreover, God by definition must be worthy of worship, and only a perfect being can be worthy of worship (as opposed, say, to admiration). That is why, as Oxford philosopher Peter Millican points out, there cannot be an evil God. We can imagine an evil creator-designer of the universe in an atheistic world (an evil god), but such a being would be neither worthy of worship nor maximally great and therefore not God. I should add as well that it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than merely conform to that paradigm, so that God must be goodness itself.

Your points are relevant to those who misguidedly try to rescue the false dilemma posed in the Euthyphro argument: either something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good. Because these alternatives are not contradictories it is open to the theist to propose a third alternative, viz., God wills something because He is good. Unhappy with this defeat of their dilemma, some have demanded: is something good because of the way God is or is God that way because something is good? The critic isn’t listening. We’ve already said that something is good because of the way God is. “But why is God good?” the critic persists. It’s hard to make sense of this question. The moral theory just is that God is the paradigm of goodness, and it makes no sense to ask why the paradigm of goodness is good. The critic must be asking, “Why believe your theory?” The answer is, “because it makes the best sense of objective moral values and duties.” It is the most plausible ethical theory out there. Your arguments are basically defenses of the plausibility of theistic ethics, and I think they succeed.

- William Lane Craig